One factor working against many children in the Erie School District is that they don't encounter nearly enough role models who look like and are more relatable to them.
As reporter Ed Palattella detailed, 59 percent of the district's 11,000 students are nonwhite — 36 percent black, 14 percent Hispanic and 5 percent Asian, with other races making up the balance. But just 4 percent of the teachers those students encounter in classrooms are nonwhite. That's 30 black teachers and one Asian among 804 full-time teachers.
Eight of the 31 nonwhite teachers, all of them black, were newly hired for this school year. That modest gain results from a multi-pronged approach by the school system to diversify its staff and make it more culturally reflective of the students it serves.
"The students need a role model that they can connect to personally," schools Superintendent Brian Polito told Palattella. "And often that is a person who has the same background they have."
Polito in 2017 named Ken Nickson, a former associate dean at Northwest Pennsylvania Collegiate Academy, as the district's first coordinator of educational diversity, equity and inclusion. One of his primary responsibilities is growing the ranks of minority teachers.
Research shows the importance of that. A study published in November by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that black students who have one black teacher by the third grade are 13 percent more likely to enroll in college, which climbs to 32 percent if they have two.
The findings follow previous research that showed having one black teacher in elementary school cut low-income black students' probability of dropping out of high school by 29 percent. That climbs to 39 percent for low-income black boys.
Building the ranks of minority teachers is a daunting proposition, at least in the short term. Teachers are in demand nationwide, Nickson said, and have a lot of options.
In addition to regional and national recruiting, the ways the Erie district is working to address the challenge include expanding Erie High School's education programs, which aim to get students interested in teaching careers, preferably in Erie; seeking funding to give would-be Erie teachers money for college expenses; and identifying black and other nonwhite professionals who might be interested in getting a teaching degree and launching a new career.
It is welcome and vital that Polito and his team are being purposeful and seeking to be creative in pursuing a goal that clearly promises big benefits for Erie's minority children. When black students see black teachers and other professionals, it makes such ambitions tangible, Milton Robinson, a black teacher at Erie High, told Palattella.
"They can envision doing it themselves," he said.